June 10, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Nearly a thousand college and international amateur players saw their lives change irrevocably over the weekend when Major League Baseball held its annual First-Year Player Draft.
As usual, Georgia Tech was well represented in that group as seven players were selected. That included three fixtures over the past three years that heard their names called within the first five rounds.
Outfielder/left-handed pitcher Daniel Palka, catcher/right-handed pitcher Zane Evans, and right-handed starter Buck Farmer all were among the elite names selected within those first five rounds and within the first 156 picks.
That says a lot about the proud state of the Georgia Tech program and, according to head coach Danny Hall, even more about the players themselves.
“We had some very good players in our senior and junior class and I say this, anytime somebody drafts you it’s a tremendous honor. Not many guys get a chance to play professional baseball,” said Hall, who has now seen 107 players drafted in his 20 years on the Flats, 34 of them within the first five rounds. “To be drafted, first, just goes to show how good these guys are and, second, it’s a reward for a lot of hard work that’s gone into making themselves good enough to get drafted.”
Palka was the first Yellow Jacket to go, getting selected in the third round, No. 88 overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks. There was little doubt about whether or not he’s ready for the next level.
The left-handed slugger was first-team All-ACC and a Louisville Slugger All-American and led the ACC with a career-best 17 homers, while also setting career-bests in batting average (.342 — 39 points higher than his next-best year), slugging (.637 — 81 points higher), on-base percentage (.436 — 56 points higher), hits (81), RBI (66), and total bases (151). He also came on late on the mound, pitching to a 0.69 ERA allowing only one run in eight appearances covering 13.0 innings, while holding opposing hitters to a .143 average.
Palka is the highest-drafted position player since Derek Dietrich was selected at No. 79 by the then-Florida, now Miami, Marlins, for whom he is now starting at second.
Evans didn’t have to wait much longer than Palka to hear the news that he was going to be drafted. He was selected in the fourth round, at No. 114, by the Kansas City Royals.
“I was sitting on couch with my grandma, had computer in front of me,” said Evans, who actually got a heads-up from the Royals about four picks before his name was called. “I called my mom and dad, couldn’t talk. I was so excited. It’s a great chance to play at next level.”
Evans, like Palka, was first-team All-ACC as a junior, and is a national finalist for the Johnny Bench Award. It was a reward for a season that saw him lead the team with a .361 batting average (one point higher than center fielder Kyle Wren, an eighth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves), tie Palka for the team lead in RBIs and finish with 14 homers. He came within three dingers of becoming the first Yellow Jacket to win the team Triple Crown since Mark Teixeira did so in 1999.
He saved his best year for what likely will be his last with Tech, as his batting average was 66 points higher than his next-best year, he scored 47 runs (13 more than either of the previous two years), had 88 hits (22 better than last season), hit five more homers than his first two seasons combined, and increased his RBIs by 15, while his strikeouts actually went down to a career-low 40. On the mound, he earned his first two wins while lowering his ERA from 3.68 to 3.38.
Evans had seen K.C.’s advanced scouts around and knew they were one of the teams interested in his services. He said the Royals have expressed a desire to use him as a catcher.
“They’re a great organization,” he said. “They’re young. That’s good for me and I’m definitely going to work my hardest to get up to that team. That’s my goal in life and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
Evans expects to sign with the team next week and then travel to the team’s Spring Training site in Surprise, Arizona, then see where they want him to go. He could play short-season with the Surprise Royals in the Rookie League. They play a 56-game schedule beginning on June 20.
The final member of Tech’s top-five club was Buck Farmer.
The team’s Friday night pitcher the last two seasons, Farmer was selected in the fifth round with the 156th pick. He had a good idea that the Tigers were going to select him, as he already had a relationship with their area scout Jim Rough.
Farmer admitted he followed the team as much if not more than they followed him.
“I know a lot about the Tigers organization,” he said. “I’ve known Jim for like five years. My favorite pitcher in baseball is Justin Verlander so I kind of keep up with the Tigers and especially keep up with him. They’ve got Prince Fielder. They’ve got great hitting, great pitching. So it’s one of the teams I’ve kept up with for a while.”
Farmer’s selection, which he saw in his living room with his dad and girlfriend, was the culmination of a mission, as he’d been drafted in the 15th round by Milwaukee in 2012 (he’d originally been drafted by Atlanta on the 46th in 2009 right out of high school) but chose to come back and try to raise his stock. He certainly did that.
Despite going head-to-head with the best pitchers on every team, Farmer went 9-5 with a 2.78 ERA, striking out 122 versus only 35 walks, while holding opposing hitters to a .244 batting average. His ERA was a career low, while his 113 1/3 innings and 122 K’s were career highs. Buck was a semifinalist for National Pitcher of the Year and beat a pair of top-five teams in Virginia and No. 1 North Carolina.
“Moving up 10 rounds from last year, coming back for my senior year really helped me out,” he said. “It gave scouts another opportunity to see me again and solidify their thoughts on my ability to pitch.”
He leaves Georgia Tech with no regrets and especially relished the opportunity to go out fighting in the NCAA Regional against Vanderbilt, throwing four gritty innings on only a day-plus rest. He believes that it was a good thing for the Tigers to see.
“In their eyes it probably was like, ‘Let’s see if he can do it. Let’s see if he can come back on a day and a half rest and see if he can do it,” he said.
There wasn’t much Farmer couldn’t do on the college level. Now he’ll test his stuff in the pros. He’s headed to Lakeland, Fla., the Tigers’ Spring Training site, where he will undergo a physical and then throw a bullpen. Depending on how that goes he’ll either pitch in the rookie league in Lakeland or go to one of their Low-A affiliates in Grand Rapids, Mich., or Norwich, Conn.